OFF THE COAST OF SCITUATE — The high-tech battle for the future of the Massachusetts fishing industry is being waged aboard a western-rigged stern trawler named the Miss Emily.
Onboard the commercial groundfish vessel, in addition to the satellite positioning system and other sophisticated tools that have become standard in the industry, are at least five computer monitors and a $14,000 fish-measuring board that has halved the time it takes to gauge the catch.
State officials say it’s money well spent.
Federal catch limits — caps on how many fish each boat can catch — have devastated the state’s most iconic commercial sector, fishermen say. In response to an outcry from the struggling local groundfishing industry, environmental officials are now using the Miss Emily to try to come up with a new — and, they say, more accurate — estimate of codfish in the Gulf of Maine.
Under a survey launched last April, local fishermen hope new technology and an aggressive timetable will yield what they have concluded based on their own anecdotal evidence: There are more fish in the sea.
“That’ll give the federal scientists something to think about,” says David Pierce, director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries. “It’s going to be eye-opening, I suspect. It’s going to force them to do some soul-searching.”
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration estimates put the Gulf of Maine groundfish stock at historically low levels, dictating a corresponding reduction in catch limits. Between 1982 and 2013, the number of metric tons of cod landed aboard commercial vessels plunged from more than 13,000 to 951, according to federal estimates. That, predictably, has drastically undercut the industry.
“The fleet has been decreasing in size, and we’re seeing less effort due to these catch limits,” says Bill Hoffman, a senior biologist with the state who oversees the survey. “Guys have gotten out.”
The 55-foot Miss Emily, skippered out of Scituate by captain Kevin Norton, has been equipped to approximate a smaller version of the Henry B. Bigelow, a 209-foot floating research vessel operated by NOAA, that is used to count fish for the federal government. Using a small portion of $21 million in federal fisheries disaster relief, the state launched a series of random “tows” to counter what some think is the less accurate federal vessel.
The fishermen hope some of the technological advances will turn up more favorable counts that would ease some of the catch limits. They quibble with the results from the Bigelow, saying its net misses large stocks of groundfish that swim beneath it and that it cannot go to key “in-shore” areas that the Albatross IV, which it replaced, could.
Next month, working with the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, another vessel out of New Bedford will begin using an open trawling net equipped with video cameras that record fish as they pass through.
For their part, NOAA officials appear agnostic about where the effort might lead. Research conducted aboard the Miss Emily will result in just one chunk of data used to determine catch limits.
“We’re always interested in more data, and we certainly look forward to seeing the results of the survey,” said Teri Frady, chief of research communications at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
But the survey itself marks a more aggressive stance adopted by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration. Baker memorably wept during a debate late in the 2014 campaign discussing the plight of a career fisherman, a tale whose details Baker later admitted he had flubbed.
Days later, Baker said he was pleased that the controversy had drawn attention to groundfishing because “it’s an industry that hasn’t gotten the kind of support and the kind of attention that it deserves.”
Now, Baker said, the focus is on finding data that represents a “scientifically based alternative measure.”
“Groundfishing is really the part that has taken the biggest hit,” Baker said, adding, “It’s just been unbelievably painful for a long time.”
On a Sunday morning in November, the Miss Emily chugs out of Scituate Harbor toward Stellwagen Bank in choppy water. “There’s some rollers out there,” says Matthew Beaton, Baker’s energy and environmental affairs chief, whose agency is overseeing the survey. The study sprawls from southern Cape Cod Bay to Portland, Maine, and much of it takes place during the winter months.
To conduct the survey, nets off the Miss Emily’s stern are dropped, intended to troll at three knots for a half hour, covering about 1.5 nautical miles. But, despite advance notice from state officials, lobster gear has been left in the boat’s path and conditions are too rough for Norton to spot it in time.
A lobster pot gets tangled in the netting, and the troll is shut down after just six minutes. Scores of fish are ensnared — winter flounder, spiny dogfish, yellowtail flounder, hake, and more — but just two cod.
Hoffman says that, although it’s still early in the research, the study so far has revealed smaller and fewer cod, the opposite of what the fishing industry is hoping.
Even the parameters of the survey itself have proved controversial. Norton, who says that without survey work he would probably need to fish for scallops or squid to pay his bills, says the study’s randomized nature often pulls him away from more cod-rich areas. And a Stellwagen Bank conservation group has placed additional limits on the trawling.
“Anybody can go out and go fishing, but so far we’re in our seventh month of the survey, and it’s probably the most important place to do tows,” says Norton of Stellwagen Bank, a cod-rich area.
Still, the data can prove instructive. The last time the state conducted a similar exercise, from 2003 to 2007, it stopped short of picking up the “collapse” of the cod stock, Hoffman says. Had the research continued, “We probably would never be in the predicament we’re in with cod right now.”
Clear evidence might have led federal officials to impose catch limits or other measures, like time- and area-specific closures. Then again, some fishermen believe the additional research would have revealed more fish, perhaps undercutting the argument that the stock has dropped off.
That predicament has driven many in the industry away from groundfishing, officials say.
“They can’t afford to do codfishing anymore, so they’re moving into lobstering,” says Hoffman, who wants the current research to extend beyond its two-year window for another three to five years.
Norton estimates that 70 percent of the groundfishing industry has disappeared since the end of the last survey. Where Scituate used to send out up to 20 boats, he says, “Now we’re lucky to have three or four.” It’s a trend he and state officials hope to halt with their research.
“There’s a lot of mistrust, there’s a lot of anger” between fishermen and the government, Norton says, though he credits the Baker administration with attempting to contest the federal estimates.
“There’s a lot of fishermen that had a lot of high hopes for the [survey],” he says.
As the Miss Emily steams back toward Scituate Harbor, the water calms and the sun appears from behind clouds. Seasickness subsides, and the fish have all been counted and measured on the high-tech measuring board. An on-board printer has spooled out a label corresponding to a research request from a Gloucester scientist studying dietary habits of alewife, another upgrade that has made the boat a floating laboratory and one of the last, best hopes for one of the state’s signature industries.
The next day, Norton said later, the Miss Emily went out again and scooped up 4,000 pounds of cod.